Ray Lewis Isn’t the Only One Bringing Religion to Super Bowl Sunday

Our interfaith household heads into this Sunday polymorphously devotional. 

There will be three hours at our local Mormon wardhouse. For some of us, a few hours at Hebrew school. And then, there will be Superbowl.

Because these are our three religious traditions: Mormonism, Judaism, and ESPN.

(Yes, of course, sports is a religion. A thesis it surely does not take a dry rehash of Emile Durkheim to prove. Ahem.)

And because I know it matters—profoundly—to some of you exactly which sports sects my family claims, I will state it for the record. My husband watches everything but is an ultraorthodox Laker fan. If he could tie radios tuned to the Laker Sports Network around his forehead and forearms, he would. This season, he prays by pacing the living room and cursing at Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.

I myself am a sports atheist. Mind you, I come from solid ethnic Dodger stock. And in the last few years I’ve experienced a bit of a born-again BYU fancy thanks in large part to Jimmer Fredette, but nothing that comes close to true-believing Cougar fandom. I must admit I am a stone-cold nonbeliever. 

But what about the kids? people ask. Are you worried they’ll be confused with an atheist mother and an ultraorthodox father? Nah. They know more about the NBA than any seven- and nine-year-old girls in history. They talk about Metta World Peace as if he were a family friend. With their capacious knowledge of early 21st-century sport lore, they’ll be able to talk to anyone. They’ll be the great sports cosmopolites. Call them reform.

Our household heads into Super Bowl weekend faithfully prepared to observe all of its rites. There will be thirty people in our living room. Thirty more children will be corralled in a bedroom with a video projector and endless episodes of Phineas and Ferb. This is how we keep them happy: open the door, toss in bags of popcorn and Girl Scout cookies, close the door. For the grown-ups, there will be chips and queso, a sacramental six foot-long sandwich, beer for the non-Mormons, and Diet Coke for the Mo’s.

My husband will make book. Small book. One dollar bets. Whether that’s an expression of his Jewish identity or his sportstafarianism, I don’t know. Call it a hybrid faith practice.

Who will we root for? It’s complicated. I’ll take the 49ers because Steve Young used to play for them. And Steve Young is the world’s coolest member of the Mormon royalty. Now, ask my husband who he’s rooting for, and he’ll wax long about how he’s NFL-spiritual-but-not-religious. He was abandoned by the sect of his upbringing when the Rams moved to Saint Louis. Decades ago. Still mourning that one, he is, but also enjoying the ironic freedom religious rootlessness offers. He’ll be pulling for the 49ers, but really, he is one of the “nones.” 

This Sunday, I vow I will not keep count of the number of times Ray Lewis preaches prosperity football gospel. (Cue the organ.) I will not cringe when he says, as he will, “no weapon formed shall prosper” (Isaiah 54: 17). Most importantly, and more seriously, I will not cast judgment on his conversion.

I will keep the Diet Coke cold. I will keep the queso hot and bubbly. I will care for the children whose parents are caught up in the SuperBowl spirit. And I will vacuum up the mess when the Bowl is finally over.

I may be a sports atheist. But I know when I’m outnumbered.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.